One of the perennial fascinations of Pagans is horns. In Witchcraft of course it’s obvious, as horned gods play a central role in many traditions (both Wiccan and other). I’ve notced, though, that even many Druids, Recons, and Devotional Polytheists are very interested in gods with horns. Discussions and arguments frequently arise about horns, horned gods (and goddesses), ancient symbols with horns, etc. Pagans love anything that’s horny.
I frequently hear a common set of “facts” brought up regarding horned gods and horn symbols, which goes something like this:
The ancient Celts worshipped a god called Cernunnos. He was the forest god of nature and also lord of the grain. In Greece he was called Pan, and in Britain, Herne (an English cognate of Cern). He’s shown on the Gundestrup cauldron in a meditative posture. With him is a ram-headed serpent which shows that he is lord of the underworld. This is clearly related to the Pashupati seal from India, which shows the same horned god.
Don’t get me wrong. I like horned gods. I like Wicca (most of the time at least). And not everything has to be rooted in ancient history. But we should be honest: that theory above is just plain crap.
To start with, we don’t actually know that there ever was a deity named Cernunnos. The name is a hypothetical reconstruction of a partial inscription. The inscription reads ERNUNNO. It’s found on a votive pillar (the Pillar of the Boatmen) from Roman Gaul that also features a partial image of a guy with antlers. It’s believed that he’s in a seated position, but we really can’t be sure because his legs aren’t shown. Based on the antlers, we assume that the inscription originally read CERNUNNO, which would (probably) mean “to the horned one” in Gaulish, a language we still don’t know all that terribly much about. Cernunno is in the dative case, so the reconstructed nominative would be Cernunnos, meaning “horned one.”
So the Celts worshipped a god named Cernunnos?
It is a reconstruction after all. Also, the name could be an epithet—a description rather than a name. Epithets were pretty common in Roman Gaul. Sometimes they were derived from Gaulish god names, sometimes not. For all we know it could just be an epithet for one of the several local gods the Romans referred to as “Gaulish Mercury.”
But what about the Gundestrup Cauldron? That’s known to show Cernunnos, isn’t it? Not really. All we know is that it shows a guy with horns on his head. In fact, he may not even be a horned man at all—the antlers might actually be a headdress. He shares some common symbols with other Gaulish figures, but that doesn’t mean much. As for his “meditative” posture, scholars actually disagree on whether he’s sitting or squatting. Given that the image is probably consistant with a hunter, the latter may be more likely. Finally, the Cauldron was found in Northern Europe, but was probably made in Thrace, so whether it can definitively be called “Celtic” is uncertain.
At this point, you might be wondering about the Pashupati Seal. People frequently compare it to the Gundestrup Cauldron and proclaim that they clearly show the same deity. In fact, the two are similar—but what make them similar are the assumptions people make about them.
The Seal was found at Mohenjo-Daro, and is an artifact of the Indus Valley Civilization. It’s at least a thousand years older than the Cauldron (if I’m not mistaken) and from a different continent. Aside from that, interpretations rest on many assumptions. First, people assume the figure is some early form of Shiva Pashupati, for no real reason. Second, this figure also might be wearing a headdress rather than actually having horns. Third, we’re not even certain the figure is male.
Now hold on. Horns are a masculine symbol!
Really? Tell that to the ancient Egyptians, because no one gave them the memo. They had both horned gods (Khnum, for instance) and horned goddesses (Isis and Hathor were both depicted with horned headdresses). This shouldn’t be surprising. There are in fact species of cows in which both males and females have horns. This is true for some species of deer as well—reindeer, for example, have antlers regardless of sex. Wearing horns doesn’t make a figure male or divine.
It also doesn’t make it the same figure as another simply because of the horns. The Greek god Pan has goat horns. The Pashupati Seal shows water buffalo horns. The Gundestrup Cauldron and the Pillar of the Boatmen show figures with antlers. This is an important distinction, since it may imply different themes. While horns are generally a permanent feature, antlers often aren’t. Many deer species loose their antlers every year and grow new ones.
As for Herne, it’s a great myth, but Herne and Cernunnos probably aren’t cognate. Sorry.
A question immediately follows, however: Does any of this matter? That depends on your view. Are all these gods the same? Are they wholly different? Points on a spectrum? Are they forms of an underlying archetype or individual divine persons. Are they even real? It depends on your theology, and theology is something I generally don’t discuss in detail here at the Wanderer’s Temple, so I’ll leave it to you to figure out.